As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare to slide into some actual full-speed practices with their upcoming OTA days, they have 11 wide receivers on the offseason roster. They will likely add a few more from the ranks of undrafted rookies and give a few more a shot with tryout contracts at this weekend's rookie mini-camp. The offseason program is more for learning than setting a positional hierarchy – that starts in earnest in training camp – but there will be a lot to sort out in the wide receiver room.
Even among the sure things there are some uncertainties to work through – Chris Godwin is rehabbing a torn ACL suffered late in the 2021 season and free agency addition Russell Gage has to absorb a whole new offense after four years in Atlanta. Still, those two and Mike Evans, the most accomplished receiver in franchise history, figure to be at the top of the depth chart in 2022.
Where it gets more intriguing is at the back end of that depth chart. The Buccaneers did not select a receiver in the most recent draft but have a number of young players who will be battling each other for roles in Tampa Bay's Tom Brady-led offense.
"Really, the way that I look at it and the same thing I'm telling the guys in the room, on this team we've got Mike and we've got Chris, and those two guys have established themselves in their roles and what they bring to the offense," said Wide Receivers Coach Kevin Garver. "Besides that, it's open season. It's really competition across the board. They've all got different talents and abilities and bring something different to the table. But I'm really looking forward to the competition as this moves along here."
Antonio Brown was the Bucs' third-leading pass-catcher among wideouts last year but obviously is no longer in the picture. Tyler Johnson was right behind him with 36 grabs and will surely be at the center of the wide receiver depth competition. But in terms of relatively untapped potential – at least last season – the trio of Scotty Miller, Cyril Grayson and Jaelon Darden have an opportunity to produce much more in 2022. For a variety of reasons, those three combined for just 21 receptions last season; any one of them, or perhaps more than one, could easily top that mark by himself this fall. That would be especially true if the guys at the top of the depth chart missed time due to injury, as happened to a signficant degree in both 2019 and 2021.
"Wide receiver depth, as you guys have noticed, we've had to use it since we've been here in '19. In '19, we end up in Week 15 and we had nobody that started the year off with us, right?" said Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. "But that's how we got to meet [tight end] Codey [McElroy], right? That's how Cyril came here. That's where those relationships started, really – Week 15, 2019. We understand that we have depth at some positions but we expect to have to use it because that's the way football is. We just want to get everybody prepared, everybody to be their best selves, understand that they are all a little different in what they bring. But we just want them to be who they are and be the best version of that."
Miller's 2021 season left a lot of Bucs fans scratching their head. The speedy 2019 sixth-round draft pick had emerged as a big-play maker during the 2020 Super Bowl run, racking up 501 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season and adding a couple enormous plays in the playoffs. Last year, his playtime dropped by more than a half to 135 snaps and he finished with five receptions and a very unrepresentative 7.6 yards per catch. As is frequently the case when a player seems to inexplicably lose playing time, an underappreciated injury situation was part of the cause. Early in the season, Miller suffered a turf toe injury, which itself may be the most underappreciated ailment in the sport. It put him on injured reserve for seven weeks and he initially struggled to reclaim playing time upon his return.
"I just think Scotty got a bad injury at the wrong part of the year," said Leftwich. "That injury's tougher than you guys think. It just was a long time of him not being there, and other guys started stepping up. Scotty's just got to be Scotty. He's made plays since he's been here. The Super Bowl year, I just envision the plays that he made, not just the Green Bay [touchdown]. I envision the Minnesota plays, the plays where he jump-started us a lot. You watch him on tape and you try to give him more opportunities, more opportunities in certain situations to do what he's done since he's been here."
Miller trades in speed, obviously, and it's worth noting that he averaged 15.2 yards per catch over his first two seasons. The play at Lambeau Field that leaps into Leftwich's mind was a 39-yard shocker just before halftime that changed the whole tenor of that NFC Championship Game. Despite his relative lack of size, Miller isn't really a slot receiver. His role when all is well is to take the top off a defense.
"I think last year it was kind of weird – he went out with the injury, the timing of it, and then other guys kind of stepped up in that place, in that role," said Garver. "And so it made it a little bit harder for him to get back right away, and then obviously at the end he ended up getting back on the field. He's going to have an opportunity just like everyone else. Obviously, the Super Bowl run that year, he contributed a lot to us in the offense and made a lot of big plays for us. He definitely has the ability; I think it's just a matter of what he does on the field moving forward."
Grayson has mostly been on the other side of that opportunity equation. He was a track star at LSU after playing football in high school, and so he bounced around quite a bit trying to get his foot in the NFL door as a raw but blazingly fast project. That started in 2017 and he spent time with seven other teams without seeing the field in the regular season before landing in Tampa late in 2019. Even then, he was still essentially a track guy trying to learn the receiver position, even in his own eyes. He famously had a rough practice during the 2020 season that prompted a conversation with Brady that actually raised his confidence level. Last year, that confidence went up another notch and he was ready when a rash of late-season injuries opened the door for his first significant playing time.
"I think his biggest jump was a year ago at this time," said Leftwich. "I think he started to believe. When we first got him, he was really a track guy still. He still saw the game as if he was playing track. You see his skillset and you're like, 'Man, if we can get him to a certain awareness and be able to play,' because he's out-running everybody. He plays the game fast. I think he's going to get better."
It was Godwin's injury that, while exceedingly unfortunate for the Bucs and their Pro Bowl player, really gave Grayson a chance. When Godwin went down, the Bucs not only lost one of their best pass-catchers but also a key cog in their blocking schemes. Grayson doesn't have Godwin's size or all-out blocking talent, but he was definitely willing and that earned him a lot of playing time in Weeks 16 and 17 against the Panthers and Jets. He caught nine passes on 11 targets for 162 yards and a touchdown, including a 62-yarder that set up a touchdown at Carolina and the come-from-behind 33-yard game-winner in the Meadowlands. Unfortunately, the injury bug then got him, too, and he missed the playoffs, but he's still ready to build on his end-of-season momentum this year.
"I think he's truly confident now," said Leftwich. "I think he truly believes that he can get it done, and it's fun for me to see the confidence that he shows up in practice with every day. It's like a whole different guy from three years ago. He knows he belongs now and hopefully he carries himself that way and acts that way on Sundays."
Darden faced the same crowded depth chart that kept Grayson on the practice squad for most of last season, though he did get on the field early as a return man. The fourth-round pick out of North Texas also faced a difficult transition from a small-school offense that used a lot of no-huddle and did not have as deep of a structure as what he would find in Tampa. The Buccaneers drafted Darden thinking that his quickness and lateral agility would make him a valuable underneath run-after-the-catch weapon, but he finished the season with just six catches for 43 yards. The Buccaneers may try to develop him in that same sort of role in 2022, however, now that he's much more at ease in their offense.
"I think I saw a big turn for him probably about halfway through the season, just feeling more confident, more comfortable, getting more reps,: said Garver. "We're a different offense than what he did at North Texas. Everything was at the line, everything was no-huddle. We ask our guys to understand a little bit more. We put a little bit more on their plate. So that was a transition for him, having to learn to do that.
"But he got more comfortable as the season went on, as he got more reps, as he was more confident in what to do and how to do it. So I was really impressed with that, and I will say, coming back in this offseason program he's had that demeanor. It's carried from last year into this year, and just the confidence, lining up and executing. I think that he has a lot of upside to him. He's a talented guy, he moves extremely well, he catches the ball extremely well. So I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do."
Brown may be gone but every other wideout who caught a pass for the Buccaneers in 2021 is coming back for training camp this year. There are a couple other young developmental types on the roster, too, and there will be a few more after this weekend. There is usually only room for six or seven receivers on the regular-season roster at any given time, but that doesn't mean there will only be six or seven contributors from that group in 2022.
"You can never have enough wide receivers," said Garver. "You can never have enough. It is the next-man-up mentality for us, for sure, but you never know when those injuries are going to arise and you've got to have enough talent in there to line up and win week to week.
"We've got a lot of guys in there, we've got a lot of depth. Those guys are fighting every day and they're fighting for a job from the top to the bottom and that's got to be the mindset. We'll see what happens."